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Source: Washington Post

Jan 10, 2023

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

As the cost of rent kept rising in Tehran, the software programmer and his wife knew it was time to leave. So they, like many other young couples, packed up their belongings in late 2020 and moved to a town outside the capital.

Rent was cheaper there, but the housing was poorly constructed because of rapid growth. There were no schools or playgrounds nearby. Even the most basic services were a commute away.

Two years later, their economic situation has only gotten worse. The programmer, 38, says the idea of owning a home in the satellite town is a distant dream; he had hoped to buy a used car, but even the three-year-old Kia hatchback he had his eye on is out of reach. With the money he and his wife, a 38-year old nurse, put away each month, it would take more than two years to afford the car.

“I feel rage, rage and a lack of hope. It’s desperation,” said the programmer in a telephone interview. Like others in this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing government retribution.

“And if we go out to protest they crack down in the worst and most reprehensible way,” he said. “We really don’t know what to do. We can’t protest. We can’t improve our situation.”

For nearly four months, Iran has been rocked by protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman, in the custody of the “morality police” last September. What began as a movement focused on women’s rights quickly morphed into a broader uprising against the strictures of the Islamic Republic, with demonstrators calling for greater cultural and political freedom, and an end to the abuses of the security state.

But economic grievances are also fueling the unrest, observers and protesters say. Discontent has risen sharply since last spring when costs began soaring and the value of the currency crashed against the dollar, hitting record lows in December. Inflation topped 48 percent last month, according to government figures — the highest its been since 1995 — and most Iranians are having to make do with less. For many households, staples like meat and eggs have become luxuries.

“The first effect this inflation has is on people’s livelihood,” Saeed Leylaz, an economist and political analyst based in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. “The government hasn’t been able to do anything to reduce inflation until now because of corruption.”

Iranians shop in a bazaar in Tehran. Iran is facing a political and economic crisis, which has caused prices to increase in every aspect. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Islamic Republic has long been plagued by economic mismanagement, analysts say. But the situation got dramatically worse after President Trump pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed a series of harsh sanctions on the country. Iran has struggled to find buyers for its oil, the country’s main export. In late 2019, a hike in fuel prices sparked widespread protests and a deadly government crackdown.

Many ordinary Iranians had hoped a new U.S. administration would restore the nuclear deal and offer sanctions relief. But the current protests, and the heavy-handed state response, have further complicated negotiations.

“I would say it’s not completely dead,” said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech. “If the two sides want it, nothing fundamental has shifted. What has shifted is the scene, and that scene is repairable,” he added, referring to the uprising.

But Iran’s clerical rulers have shown no indication they are willing to consider reforms that might calm the unrest, despite international pressure. Security forces have killed more than 500 people and arrested some 19,000, according to the activist news agency HRANA. Four men have been executed in connection with the protests.

As the repression deepens, ordinary Iranians are struggling to make ends meet. A young man in Tehran who works as a driver for Snapp, a popular ride-sharing app that is similar to Uber, said business has fallen steeply since the protests started because the government has restricted internet access to prevent protesters from communicating and uploading videos and pictures of the crackdown.

“When the internet was cut and there was no access to the applications, my income was severely reduced,” said the young man. “The situation hasn’t improved, at least for me.”

His business has taken an additional hit, he said, because some protesters stopped using ride-shares, suspecting the drivers were informing on them to security agencies.

“Repression is costly,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “So is the self-inflicted wound of shutting down the internet, which has driven hundreds of thousands out of the job market.”

Ethnic minority parts of Iran, such as the Kurdish region in the west and the Baluch region in the southeast, have been hit even harder.

In the past, Chiman, a 37-year-old from Mahabad in the Kurdish region, had a job in sales that allowed her to pay for her own health care and clothes, even splurge on music classes and membership at a pool. Now, she has no steady income and has lost her health insurance.

She relies on her family for food, though inflation means they can only afford a fraction of the meat, fish and fruit that was once plentiful in their household. It is all the more upsetting, she said, because the Kurdish region is rich in farmland, but has suffered from years of discrimination and disinvestment.

“I have a sense of insecurity, deep anxiety and anger. I have no hope in the future,” said Chiman. “One of the main reasons for the protests is these economic problems.”

In late December, the government appointed a new head of the central bank, an apparent attempt to stave off a free fall in the currency, but it is unlikely to have much impact in the short term, observers say.

For many Iranians, there is only one solution left. “After 44 years, people are seeing that there’s not even the smallest amount of rationality in the authorities, and there’s not the smallest hope for reform,” said the programmer in the town near Tehran.

“Now the only discussion is about overthrowing the government.”

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